Sexual education has long been neglected in many regions across the world. While some countries, including England, have made sexual education a compulsory subject for school curriculums, others continue to lag behind in the implementation of such crucial education policies. The Central Asian region in particular suffer from the need to implement high quality sex education throughout schools in order to avoid growing adolescent fertility and HIV rates.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) undertook a comprehensive study of “Prevention Education” in Central Asia in 2013, revealing trends of increasing adolescent fertility and abortion rates in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of Moldova. According to the World Bank’s statistics for example, the adolescent birth rate in Kyrgyzstan was 39 births per 1,000 woman aged between 15-19 in 2015. This may be compared to Kazakhstan with 27 births per 1000 and Uzbekistan with 18 births per thousand. Kyrgyzstan’s figure is significantly higher than its Central Asian counterparts. In terms of adolescent births, Kyrgyzstan, considered the ‘Island of Democracy’ in Central Asia, yet in this domain it falls behind its authoritarian neighbors. An indicator that although it may be more democratic, a reinsurgence of conservative values continues to stunt the progress of sex education policy.
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), adolescent pregnancy is strongly linked with married adolescents and affects certain subgroups disproportionately, including low income families and those from rural areas. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) attributed this link to the promotion of ethnic and religious identities and traditional gender roles in the country. This link is further reaffirmed as over 90% of adolescent births in Central Asia occur during marriage.
The UNESCO review paper further revealed that although HIV prevalence had fallen in many regions in the world, Central Asia was experiencing an upsurge. The estimated number of people living with HIV in EECA increased “between 2001 and 2011 from 970,000 to 1.4 million.” Perhaps more troubling was that in this same time frame, the prevalence of HIV among young people aged 15-24 doubled (2013).
The problem of HIV prevalence and adolescent fertility is further exacerbated by the number of young people becoming sexually active in their early teenage years, which is continuing to grow in the Central Asian region. According to Kyrgyzstan’s 2011 national report, 11 per cent of those surveyed between the ages of 15 and 24 had sexual intercourse before the age of 15. This figure was up from 4.7 per cent just 3 years prior to this.
Despite the well documented positive role sexual education has played in Western Europe, critics within the EECA continue to refer to sexual education as a Western phenomenon. Nevertheless, the clear negative consequences on the health of the infant and the mother, as well as the social consequences of adolescent pregnancy have become emerging concerns for Central Asian countries.
A growing group of young people in Central Asia are engaging in sexual intercourse with the risk of contracting HIV or having unwanted pregnancies. Countries in the region have put in place policies that have been met with some degree of success resulting in decreased adolescent fertility rates over the years, yet the decline has been less dramatic in Kyrgyzstan.
Proponents of sexual education as well as Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Health have faced backlash from religious leaders and conservative political parties. In 2013, the Reproductive Health Alliance Kyrgyzstan (RHAK) was investigated for illegally engaging in destructive activities on the basis of distributing reproductive health booklets. These booklets were widely used in Kyrgyzstan’s governmental and non-governmental services.
Tensions over conservative traditions and the need for sexual education in schools continued until 2015, when Parliament passed the law “On reproductive rights of citizens and guarantees of its implementation”, that introduced comprehensive sexuality education to the Kyrgyz school curriculum and outlined the responsibilities for schools and doctors in relation to sex education. UNESCO defines comprehensive sexuality education as an “age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information” beyond the biological aspects of sex education. Although the law was a step in the positive direction, the realities of implementing such a policy in line with UNESCO’s definition have proved to be challenging.
Although on the official curriculum, funding constraints mean that sex education is often not thoroughly taught in schools. Furthermore, due to pressure and influence from religious and conservative groups, when sexual education is available, it concentrates upon the biological characteristics of sex, rather than addressing the social and psychological aspects of sexuality. More generalized topics are taught such as “Healthy Lifestyles”. The sexual education lessons are delivered to students from Grades 6 to 11 once a month, considerably less frequently than their other compulsory subjects.
Two years later, there is still no uniform teaching policy for sex education nor any clear enforcement mechanism. With low implementation rates in schools, the execution of the law “On Reproductive Rights” should be more closely monitored to ensure students receive a satisfactory level of sex education. The policy has come under further scrutiny from activists such as Aikanysh Eralieva from RHAK arguing that it is not enough. Currently, the country lacks standards of sexual education and no concept of benchmarks to map progress.
The poor implementation of sex education in schools is coupled with the recent announcement that UNFPA’s supply for free birth control to Kyrgyz women has ended. A program that has been running in the country for almost two decades has come to a halt, with the government uneager to fill the void of delivering free birth control to women. The Kyrgyz government have taken measures to curtail the negative consequences of the termination of birth control donations. Those who have medical insurance policies will be offered a 50 per cent discount on birth control tablets. However, this measure does not go far enough for the women who remain unable to afford the contraception.
A positive, albeit passive step that the government has taken is rejecting the “Foreign Agents” Bill. The aforementioned proposed law would have placed severe restrictions on non-governmental organizations who receive donations from outside the country. Many of the outreach programs supporting sexual education and family planning in the country are organizations that receive foreign donations. If such a law were to be passed, it would have grave consequences on the state of Sex Education within schools and in Kyrgyz communities where many rely on NGOs for information on family planning. The growing initiative of NGOs training volunteers and providing resources for sex education in schools has been positively commended internationally. By refusing to accept the “Foreign Agents Law”, the government has held onto democratic principles and ensured the further work of NGOs in encouraging sex education in Kyrgyzstan. Yet more, on the government’s part, can still be done.
In order to improve adolescent birth rates and prevalence of HIV in young people, the government must put in place benchmarks to map progress and monitor the quality and consistency of sex education in schools. This should include following the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and following the definition of sexuality education set out by UNESCO. Moreover, the government must divert additional funds to family planning in order to safeguard equal access to contraceptives for all women, regardless of income. Only when the government begins to treat sex education and family planning as a priority, will adolescent birth rates and HIV prevalence among young people decline.
Marina Zabelina is the PC President in charge of Education. She is a final year Law student and is deeply interested in Global Education.
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